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Both coaches knew it wasn’t going to be easy to score on the goalie in the opposite net. It was going to take a bounce, a deflection, a tip.
Maybe a second chance.
Ben Kucera’s goal at 11:03 of the second period was the second chance Air Force needed to defeat Army West Point, 1-0, in Friday’s second Atlantic Hockey semifinal. The Falcons face Robert Morris for the league title on Saturday.
“I remember there was a lot of stuff going in the slot,” said Kucera. “[Evan] Feno found me in the slot, but I didn’t really have anything.”
Kucera then dropped it back to Evan Giesler.
Giesler quickly fed defenseman Johnny Hrabovsky at the bottom of the left circle. Hrabovsky’s deflection off of Parker Gahagen’s right pad put the puck on Kucera’s forehand.
“Johnny threw a nice pad pass that was pretty easy on me,” said Kucera.
“There’s almost no way you’re ever going to beat a goalie like Gahagen on the first shot,” said Hrabovsky. “So I was just trying to keep it alive and have some chaos in front.”
Said Gahagen: “He had a good amount of time and he just placed one off the pad, and [Kucera] was able to knock it in pretty quick.”
Said Hrabovsky: “We kind of knew going in how good [Gahagen] was, so we were just going to keep trying to get second chances. We knew if we kept getting enough chances, eventually one would go in.”
It turned out to be all Air Force would need.
“I didn’t think that 1-0 score would hold,” said Serratore. “We just couldn’t get that next goal. (Shane) Starrett was perfect, and Gahagen was near perfect.”
Each goalie had to weather his own share of storms.
Following a first period that Hrabovsky admitted was a bit tentative, the Falcons threw the kitchen sink at Gahagen in the first minute of the second period.
After a flurry around the Army West Point net, a puck deflected high off an Air Force body in front of the net and nearly went in.
“I looked behind me and saw it rolling there. I guess the reaction was just to jump at it, and fortunately I was able to get it a split second before it crossed the line,” said Gahagen. “It was one of those fun saves you get to make.”
A video review at the next stoppage confirmed the no-goal ruling on the ice.
There had been a question earlier in the week whether this goalie matchup would happen. Gahagen was nursing a groin injury aggravated against Mercyhurst last Sunday, but said he felt fine Friday.
“I kind of convinced myself I was 100 percent,” said Gahagen. “I felt if I was 100 percent confident that I could get the job done then my body, I guess, would feel fine.”
Starrett had to come up big several times late in the game when Army pulled Gahagen.
Serratore reminded his team of a similar situation in last year’s semifinal against Rochester Institute of Technology. Leading 1-0 late, Air Force failed to clear the zone, allowing RIT to tie and eventually win in overtime.
“This year’s different,” he said on the Air Force bench. “We’re going to get this done.”
“It seems like every game we played against them this year came down to the goalie getting out, and tonight it was us needing a late goal,” said Army coach Brian Riley.
All five games between the service academies this season had one or the other pulling their netminder late.
“I thought we had some good looks with the goalie out,” Riley said. “It was hard to get real good second-chance opportunities because our guy and their guy, you can’t really beat them on a first shot, so you’ve got to try to get a second-chance opportunity.”
Despite not being able to get clean changes or a faceoff, Air Force withstood an onslaught of a half-dozen shots on goal in the last 1:27.
“We had to navigate the chaos, because you know what’s going to come,” said Serratore. “That’s where you’ve got to protect the house and you need your goalie to stand tall. Starrett was perfect.”
In a game with stalwart defenses and tough penalty killing, ultimately it was the goalies who shined.
“That’s maybe a 3-2, maybe a 4-3 game with average goalies,” said Serratore.
“Parker was great for us,” said Riley, “and their guy was great for them.”